Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Road Trip Through Upper Myanmar

     (This was written on January 20th, but I haven't had Internet access to post it until now. This is my first attempt at Internet cafe publishing.)

    I'm typing this in Nyaung Oo, Burma, in a hotel room (previously cheap, but recently expensive---like all the other hotels in this area). Dylan has finished his sun salutations, and he and Damon are off to a restaurant near the Ananda Temple for dinner.
     This has been a rather unusual stay in Myanmar so far. For one thing, my companions have largely consisted of wealthy Californians, or at least Californians who have been wealthy at some point in their life. My good friend Damon is an inspired architect trying to make his contribution to this exotic country, helping it to open to the West with minimum consumerization, and without selling out the treasures of Burmese culture. I've been hanging out and traveling with him and some of his circle for about a week, which is always interesting.
     The lifestyle of the Westerners here has been giving me a certain amount of culture shock; it's more like the lifestyle in America than like what I am used to here in Myanmar. Here's a little taste of it: last year I went to a French restaurant in Yangon (to use the free wifi) with Damon's wife Stacy, their two little daughters, and one or two other women. The food was relatively deluxe and relatively expensive, catering mainly to foreigners; the only Burmese people in the place were employees; the ladies spoke English and discussed the relative merits of different kinds of Western food; and afterwards they intended to go to a spa and have their toenails done. I told Stacy that the scene reminded me of British colonial times, and she said something like, "Don't even say it." Really, the situation reminds me of the English people described in stories of colonial Asia by Somerset Maugham. Sometimes I jokingly call Stacy a mem sahib, i.e. a very Western lady colonist during the British Raj. Most of this community of expats don't speak Burmese, so they mainly associate with other Westerners or with westernized Burmese people. They drink milk imported from Germany, and fruit juice imported from Italy. They buy and eat things like Brie cheese that are rare and very expensive in this country. They also tend to be beautiful people, really beautiful people, and there's nothing necessarily bad or wrong with the way they live their lives, so I'm not complaining here; but it is a little disorienting to me that people would come to such a physically poor but wise, stoic, and beautiful country, and still prefer, or maybe even insist upon, living at a higher standard of Western comfort than I was used to even in America. With servants. I associate Burma with austerity; not just the austerity of forest monks in this country, but also the austerity of lay villagers. Even most city people here are pretty austere. But everything happens the way it's supposed to happen, and I am grateful for all of it (so far).
     I think one major difference between the colonial British and the new expats in this country is that the ones here now seem more open and friendly to the servants and common people, even though they generally don't speak the language. Sometimes the open friendliness and liberal compliments are confusing to the Burmese, as it may seem to them that the rich Westerners are demeaning their own dignity by lowering themselves to the level of their own cooks, maids, and gardeners. They make allowances for the Western barbarians who keep hugging them or touching their head, both of which are seen as uncivilized foreign customs. Many Burmese were bothered when President Obama put his arm around Daw Aung San Suu Kyi during his recent visit here, and then even kissed her. For a man publicly to touch a woman with his hands, let alone his mouth, is contrary to Burmese custom and seen as inappropriate, even if she happens to be his wife.
     Anyway, Damon, Dylan, a young Burmese man named Christopher, and I left Yangon several days ago for Bagan and Nyaung Oo. We took the new Yangon-to-Mandalay freeway, which has about one car on it per mile of road, and is so rough in places that stuff on the dashboard gets positively airborne. Ironically, I haven't gone to see a single temple in Bagan the whole time I've been here; we did go to see some old cave temples on the outskirts of Nyaung Oo though, and then climbed the platform of a not-very-ancient-looking pagoda to watch the sun go down. In my opinion it was not a very good idea for the government to have the ancient ruins renovated. I liked the old temples better when they were broken and standing in farmers' fields, with perhaps the main Buddha image having his belly ripped away by looters looking for enshrined treasures, yet still sitting and smiling in blissful samadhi. But now almost all the temples have been fixed up, and the torn bellies replaced.

Christopher putting on his anti-snake boots before a foray into the bush

     While in Nyaung Oo we met up with Ian and Scott, two filmmakers working on what they call the "Finding Silence Project," which describes the lifestyles and meditative practices of people in the world and also of people who renounce that world, in an attempt to show busy Westerners the possibility and benefits of living one's life on spiritual terms, especially with regard to meditation. They interviewed both Damon and me, and wanted to follow us to Wun Bo, my forest monastery in NW Burma.
     So, a few days ago we arrived at Wun Bo, which always is a blessing to me. The next morning when I went for alms in Lay Myay village, around 60 or 70 villagers were standing there waiting to offer food. It was like a festival, a cheerful, smiling mob scene. I remember my second night at the monastery, standing in front of my cave wearing only my lower robe in the warm, fresh January air, with the crickets chirping, looking up at the stars and feeling really joyous for the first time in weeks. I felt as though my heart was completely relieved of all burdens, and was, relatively speaking, set free. Then the following day, an uposatha or Buddhist sabbath day, there were so many visitors coming to pay their respects and welcome me back that I started feeling jaded and withdrawn again.
     Scott and Ian were impressed and inspired by the place and by the whole scene, but wanted to leave after the second night. Because it was a sabbath day the boats weren't running, so they hired a sampan to take them into town for 50,000 kyats (about $60 US). One of my good friends and supporters in the village wondered aloud that they preferred to spend 50,000 kyats, possibly a month's pay for a poor villager, than to wait until the following morning and ride into town for free. I told her, "It's OK. They're rich."
     At the monastery the presiding abbot when I'm gone, venerable Iddhidaja, kept teasing me about my lapses from Burmese-ness. He pointed out that I'm fatter now, and asked, "Where is Danielle? (referring to an inspired young pagan priestess who supports me and is my closest friend in Bellingham) Didn't you bring her with you?" He jokingly expressed amazement, more than once, that I'm still wearing monk robes. Then this morning when I was saying goodbye I told him, "May you become a master of Dhamma," whereupon he retorted, "May you not become the master of a wife!" A funny fellow is that venerable Iddhidaja.
     The only other monk at the forest monastery is venerable Khemācāra, who has been a monk for about seven years and was formerly a medical doctor. He doesn't want the villagers to know that he's a physician, however, as he's the only doctor in the area, and doesn't want people coming to him with their ailments. He just wants to be a quiet monk meditating in a quiet place (and technically it's against the rules for a monk to practice medicine on laypeople anyway). He kindly vacated the upper cave while I was there so I could stay in it. That cave is the one place I've lived longer than anywhere else in my life. Strangely, many of the things in the cave were just as I left them, even though ven. Khemācāra had been living there for almost a year. I looked upon the geckoes and the big, brown wall-clinger spiders on the walls as old friends. Dylan, who shared the cave with me for three nights, didn't much like the spiders, especially the big one near his bed.

 The ubiquitous wall (and ceiling) gecko

     On the sabbath day two young village teachers from a school run by one of the local monasteries came to visit us with about thirty children. They wanted to take the Three Refuges and Five Precepts, which all the children knew by heart, along with a long preliminary chant in formal Burmese called "Okatha." Dylan immediately fell in love with one of the schoolteachers, a willowy, big-eyed girl about twenty years old, and he told me so, so I told him how that same girl used to always touch my foot three times while making her bows, after she had put food into my bowl in the village. Her fingertips were exquisitely soft and warm, and I would often think, "Oh thankyouthankyouthankyou!" when she would do it. Then one fine day she stopped touching my foot, and I was like, "Hey! What the…. How come?" I really missed those warm, soft fingertips.
     Dylan asked the kids to sing for him, which, after some hesitant shyness, they did, belting out one song after another. Then Dylan practically stole the show by belting out his own rendition of "Naughty Little Fish," a moving ballad about a fish that bit his finger. I suspect that he was turning on the charm partly to impress the pretty schoolteacher. 

 Village children taking the precepts

     This morning after the third happy mob scene of an alms round in succession, and after I had "removed my hand from the bowl" (i.e., after I finished eating), a troop of Burmese damsels came to help us carry our luggage back to the village, where Damon's car was parked. Dylan expressed some feelings of discomfort, as I also used to feel, with the idea of girls carrying heavy loads for men. They really insist upon it though, and refusing to let them do it hurts their feelings. We went down the hill and collected Damon, who was sitting near the congregation hall playing his wooden flute, and we walked half a mile through a forest of dahat trees (Tectona hamiltoniana, which may not even have a name in English) to the village and the car.
     We were invited by a lady named Ma Htay-I to her house, so we walked there after we stowed our bags in Damon's vehicle. Possibly fifty people packed into the room we were in to watch Damon and Dylan and me. Damon kept expecting me to stand up and make a speech, or something, but I learned long ago that being interesting increases the size of the crowds; there is safety in being boring. The friendliness and hospitality of Burmese villagers is always amazing, and I was continually experiencing pangs of gratitude, especially during alms rounds. I kept feeling like I ought to give something to them in return---blessings at the very least. These people are probably the most virtuous large community of people I have ever encountered, and they are obviously much happier than we Westerners tend to be---regardless of their physical poverty, and regardless of the fact that we Westerners, in our compassion, are trying to make them more like us. As Dylan said the other night, the Burmese are "OK with discomfort," while we Westerners generally aren't. We have higher standards, and so, among other things, we are more fussy and harder to satisfy. And our patience is nowhere near to that of a villager in Lay Myay or Wun Bo.
     So, we drove back to Nyaung Oo today. We've narrowly missed several potential serious accidents due to the practical nonexistence of traffic rules in this country. Also we've seen sights one just doesn't see in the West, like a dozen or more live chickens hanging upside down from the handlebars of a bicycle, or an entire family, including a baby or a couple of live goats, loaded onto a motorcycle and zooming down the highway. Damon checked out a house he has rented here for $150 US per month (which includes electricity and water), but rent will probably increase greatly soon, as property values here are rising almost exponentially. Tomorrow they will drop me off at Taungpulu Kyauk Sin Tawya, near Meiktila, the first forest monastery I stayed at in Burma, so that I can finish ecclesiastical penance there for rules I broke while staying in America. After that I'll go back to Wun Bo, where I'm still the king. It's good to be the king. It's also good to feel welcome, and very much loved.
     Dylan's back, and doing his yoga postures again.

 Damon, ven. Iddhidaja, me, and Dylan at Wun Bo monastery


  1. Very sweet post! At least you didn't capitalize the K in king. :-) It smiles me to hear of your wonderful welcome home.


  2. Oh, I forgot to say, I LOVED reading this,

    "I remember my second night at the monastery, standing in front of my cave wearing only my lower robe in the warm, fresh January air, with the crickets chirping, looking up at the stars and feeling really joyous for the first time in weeks. I felt as though my heart was completely relieved of all burdens, and was, relatively speaking, set free."

    May you be happy Davie!